Theosis: An Introduction
BASIC DEFINITION: theosis means deification, divinization, sometimes enlightenment or illumination (but these terms were historically also used of the “awe-inspiring rites of initiation,” which are baptism/Chrismation/first communion as a whole.
The concept originates with II Peter 1:3f: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” It is near what Protestants and Roman Catholics mean by “sanctification.”
Theosis means, in the words of Anastasios of Sinai: “the elevation to what is better, but not the reduction of our nature to something less, nor is it a change in our human nature. …That which is of God is that which has been lifted up to a greater glory, without its own nature being changed.”
Theosis is our restoration to the image of God (Genesis 1, 2), but many of the fathers insist that it is a restoration beyond the original image because, now, we move into the image of Christ through the power of the Spirit, enacted in the Body of Christ, the church. Indeed, as Vladimir Lossky pointed out in his master work The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, God would have become incarnate even if Adam and Eve had not fallen into sin, in order to complete or perfect human nature. This is a wonderful insight; please think about it!
Where did it come from:
After scripture itself, we can trace a line from Paul to St Irenaeus in the 2nd century, who wrote of “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” (Against Heresies, Book V, preface)
The early fathers stress that we become by grace what Christ is by nature. St Gregory of Nyssa takes this to mean that we are raised beyond the limitations of our human nature, which began with the raising of Christ’s human nature beyond its limits, in which we will partake endlessly as members of the Body of Christ (The Life of Moses).
St Athanasius wrote, “God became man so that man might become god” (On the Incarnation 54:3). What would appear impossible, that fallen humanity might become holy as God is holy, becomes possible through Jesus Christ.
St Maximos the Confessor (580-662): “A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God himself became man…. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for his own sake to the same degree as He lowered himself for man’s sake. This is what St Paul teaches ‘…that in the ages to come he might display the overflowing richness of His grace’ (Eph. 2:7).”(Philokalia, Vol. II, 178)
St Symeon the New Theologian (+ 1022) was deeply imbued with the spirit of theosis. He spoke of God extensively as Fire and Light, and the Light is that which fills us with grace and love. God’s presence in our human soul leads to an expanded consciousness. The Light of Christ both illumines and energizes us toward this expansiveness.
In the 14th century, a controversy arose over the concept of theosis. In some ways this was a conflict between Eastern and Western theology. Representing a western mentality was a monk Barlaam, who was opposed by St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). The outcome (the controversy is too complicated to discuss in a brief overview) was based on Gregory’s distinction between the created and the uncreated energies of God. Western theology taught that there were energies God created (e.g. purgatory, grace); Gregory deftly introduced the notion of “uncreated” energies to emphasize what the church had always taught; namely, that God shares with us his Fire and Light and Love and Truth (uncreated energies) in order that we might shine forth the Light. This is the Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor that shone through Christ at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2ff).
Living in this Light which transforms us as well as Christ is another way of looking at theosis, and the image continues into the present age, especially through the accounts of people like Sts Seraphim of Sarov and Elder Joseph the Hesychast, among others, who shone forth with the Light of Tabor in their lives.
What it does not mean:
- We do not become God. That is impossible. There is a great gulf fixed between humanity and God, fixed by our estrangement from God, fixed by God’s holiness (otherness), fixed by our nature as created beings.
- We do not become little gods, each of us with our own planet, or because our nature is to be “gods” (as some American or Eastern religions teach).
- We do not participate in God’s essence (ousia is the Greek term). The church had to make this distinction early on, to salvage the concept from the erroneous notion that we actually become God. Read literally, without this safeguard, St Athanasius’ comment – which has become a maxim on the verge of being a cliché among Orthodox – is inaccurate.
- It does not mean that God forces anyone to become good, or to re-enter communion with God, or to receive the divine energies; we are creatures of free will and must choose to enter the process. This is called, in our tradition, synergeia – working together with the Holy Spirit.
- It does not mean emotional mystical experiences, undefined spirituality, or the sort of loose mysticism that is so easily talked about in our culture. This is a solidly Christian experience.
What it means:
- We participate in God’s energies. Energeia is the Greek term, and it means an action or a working, but always of a divine sort (this is true in the classical tradition as well as in the Bible; see e.g. Col. 1:29, 2:12; Acts 4:24; I Cor. 12:10; Eph. 1:19 and elsewhere; Phil. 3:21). This participation begins with repentance and forgiveness and proceeds from there. The term energeia occurs some 30 times in the New Testament, and is never translated properly.
- We become “godly,” to use an old Protestant term. By participating in God’s energies, we align with God’s will and purpose in the world.
- We put into practice (praxis) the spiritual teachings of Jesus by participating in the sacramental life and ascetic practices of the church.
- We contemplate God (theoria is the Greek term and it means “beholding” as in wonder); thus and so do we come to know what it means to be fully human. St Irenaeus, again: “the glory of God is a human being fully revealed” (Against Heresies, Book V).
- We enter into struggle (podvig in Russian) against the temptations in order to conform to the image of Christ. A podvig is the special effort we make to align with God. It is a term that means not only effort, but a special resolve to become more attuned to God’s work in our life through ascetic practice. Not that we ever earn God’s favor by such labors; they are a gift to ourselves that enables us to focus more clearly on God’s presence in our lives.
Pascha is the model for this experience; at Pascha we “come, receive the Light” which shines forth from the resurrection. Theosis is, at bottom, the reconciliation of the created order (man, the universe) with the uncreated (God).
We experience growth in Christ in spurts. Sometimes we experience reversals, as when we are trapped by our temptations and cannot seem to get out from under them. The promise of the Christian life, however, is that we shall “see (God) face to face.” In the meantime, we can move toward the warmth and the light of God’s countenance, because we have and will experience it in the person of Christ.
For Further Reading
Besides resources cited in the text, interested readers may consult the following:
- Mahoney, Fr. George, The Mystic of Fire and Light (St Symeon).
- Meyendorff, Fr. John, St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality.
- Staniloae, Fr Dumitru, Orthodox Spirituality, Part Three: Perfection.
- Stavropoulos, Archimandrite Christoforos, Partakers of Divine Nature.
- St Symeon the New Theologian, The First-Created Man.